As we were enjoying a Caccio y Pepe pizza for our last day in Rome, trying to soak up a massive hangover, my friend Darcy and I made a pact: go a whole month without drinking, starting October 1st.
She would be doing the Whole 30 diet (which also implies no meat, dairy, gluten, or sugar) as she does every year, and I was just curious to see what it would feel like to be sober for 30 days. If you had told me I was going to stop drinking a week before, I would have laughed loudly. I had no idea how much it would change me.
In the 10 years of my life since I started consuming alcohol, I had never consciously cut down on drinking — because I never thought I had to: I loved it! Being French, drinking was much more than just a personal habit. It was a family ritual, a national communion, a fancy hobby.
Early on, my Dad insisted on teaching me a thing or two about vineyards and grape varieties, and watching him choose the wine at a restaurant was always a pleasure. My Mom always had several bottles at home and we would have champagne on any special occasion (birthdays, Christmas, graduation).
You would always bring one or the other when going to people’s houses for dinner, or to a party. Alcohol was just a part of your everyday life.
Growing up, people around me were so proud of French wines and the culture surrounding them that they couldn’t fathom the existence of alcoholism. It wasn’t a word that we associated with our own alcohol consumption. It was for the others: the less privileged, the homeless, the Americans in movies. It was truly foreign.
Except it wasn’t: I started noticing patterns of a drinking problem in the adults around me. They were educated and wealthy, had a high-end job and a family, even worked out, and had run marathons when they were younger.
But they were letting alcohol kill them slowly.
And so was I. As a teenager, I began to indulge in the occasional binge-drinking, which became less occasional when I started college, and even less so when I moved to Spain after graduating. Spain, like France, has a social culture heavy with alcohol. I would begin to live the best years of my life, but I would also drink almost every day.
For 20 months, I went days or even weeks without taking a break from drinking. A couple of beers on Monday, Karaoke night on Tuesday, wine at dinner on Wednesday, more beers on Thursday, several gin & tonics on Friday and Saturday while going out, and some vermouth, cider, and/or mimosas for the traditional Sunday-drinking. Just writing it down makes me sick.
The days leading up to this fateful Thursday are blurry (as often when alcohol was involved). But I will never forget the 1st of October, 2020.
That night, I was supposed to go on a first date with this guy I had met on a dating app. We had been talking on and off for a few months (always in French, as he was from Catalogna), and decided to get a drink that day.
As I was walking to the park where we had agreed to meet, I felt the usual first-date anxiety, amplified by the fear that being sober would make me a terrible date. And then it hit me: I had never had sex with someone for the first time without alcohol being involved.
I went mentally through my list of partners and realized I was always under the influence of alcohol when I discovered someone’s body, even if it was just a little. And it makes sense considering how I would meet them: having a drink after meeting on an app, or at a club/party (where I was always drinking). I still feel ashamed when I think about it.
But I swallowed this feeling and met my date. I asked for a sparkling water as he ordered a beer, and explained with a smile that I had just started Sober October. He smiled back and asked me why, looking sincerely interested in the answer (I would learn throughout the evening that it was his way of being, sincerely interested, which made me fall in love with him too quickly).
Even though it was not directly linked to my being sober, this date was one of the best I had ever had, if not the best. We talked for hours until the bar closed, about our deepest truths as well as more mundane yet passionately interesting topics.
We connected immediately, and I didn’t once feel the need to drink alcohol to seem more interesting or sexy. It gave me the confidence that I could still put myself out there without liquid courage.
A few days later, I had a much less agreeable experience. I was having dinner at a friend’s house with some of her own friends (all respecting COVID safety measures) and was drinking non-alcoholic beer. I never liked the taste of beer but it was all I could find at the supermarket (I refused to start drinking sodas).
As we were all having drinks in the living room, this Italian from New-York started making fun of me for drinking “that shit” as he called it, saying that only alcoholics would consume it.
“How do you know I am not an alcoholic?”, I countered, trying to keep my cool. He shrugged and poured himself a pint of beer.
Granted, I was drinking too much, but I wasn’t an alcoholic. Not in the way we usually mean it. I never drank on my own or passed out from overindulging in liquor. I never got anxious at the thought of not being able to find alcohol somewhere, nor got into a fight while drunk. I’ve never missed work or an important event.
But I did have sex with people I wasn’t necessarily attracted to or did things I didn’t fully consent to — and sometimes I wouldn’t even remember what exactly I had done. I did put myself in somewhat dangerous situations and put my body through terrible hangovers, sometimes consecutively. I realized all this when I stopped drinking, but it wasn’t what helped me stay sober.
What did was being diagnosed with endometriosis when I was 19 and fainting from the pain every month when I had my periods, afraid that I would never be able to have children.
What did was losing my Mom to breast cancer when I was 20, and knowing that this specific cancer is very heavily impacted by alcohol consumption.
What did was seeing how much better I felt, my anxiety symptoms diminishing, my body less bloated but also stronger from working out.
I was — logically — healthier. But I was also happier, and this part I didn’t expect.
See, I had always been an extroverted girl, who loved going to parties and festivals, dinners and drinks with friends, always out and about, meeting new people, having crazy experiences. Somewhere along the way, it had become my identity. In my mind, quitting alcohol was like giving up on a whole part of my life and who I was, one that I thought I needed.
But with the pandemic shutting down most nightlife and activities, and the days becoming shorter and colder as fall turned into winter, that transition went by much smoother than I thought.
I was still going for (non-alcoholic) drinks and dinners, I was still having crazy (fully consensual) sex but I started enjoying spending several evenings in a row at home, reading in bed with my dog, listening to jazz music while drinking herbal tea. I had turned 70 suddenly, and I loved it. More than anything, I loved the feeling of control that I felt I had gained over my life.
And so when the month of October came to an end, I started thinking about what I would do next: I contemplated the idea of never drinking a single drop of alcohol ever again, and for a few days it seemed like the best thing to do.
But I quickly realized that it wasn’t realistic, nor was it what I wanted. I wanted to be able to enjoy the occasional fancy cocktail, the birthday champagne, and the nice red wine from my father’s collection. I wanted this to be a long-lasting change, and I knew it wouldn’t be possible if the restriction was too strong.
It’s been almost three months since I first quit drinking alcohol. Nowadays, I‘m allowing myself a couple of glasses a week but never to get drunk: that’s the limit I’ve set for myself. Sometimes I drink three glasses instead of two, and that’s ok. It’s not perfect, because I don’t have to be. I don’t know how long it will last, but so far it’s been working for me.
Not only am I healthier and happier, but I have made stronger connections with people, have started writing a book with a friend and picked up photography, have fallen in love, dug deeper into spirituality, and just started training to become a sex counselor.
I’m not saying all these things wouldn’t have happened if I had kept on drinking — I have no idea. But they did, and I can only be grateful that I tried it.